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Friday, October 28, 2011

Moses Asch in the 21st Century: A Digitization Project is Born

Moses Asch and Folkways Records Booth
at a Convention, early 1950s,
Photograph by David Jackson
The Ralph Rinzler Archives and Collections recently received a Save America’s Treasures grant to support the digitization of the Moses and Frances Asch Collection. Comprised of a diverse range of materials--papers, sound recordings, photographs and artwork-- the collection includes content spanning the record labels that Asch founded.

 Moses Asch was born in Poland in 1905, the son of the renowned Yiddish author Sholem Asch. His childhood was spent in Poland, France, Germany and New York, the latter being where he eventually settled. Moses Asch’s early career was in radio electronics, and through his interest in high-quality sound reproduction, he began to record music.  Asch went on to establish several record companies, Asch Recordings and Disc Records being among his earliest. Asch co-founded Folkways Records in 1948 with Marian Distler, and it became one of the most important independent record companies in the United States in the 20th century, releasing 2,168 recordings. With his passing in 1986, the Smithsonian Institution received Asch’s papers in 1987, where it remains one of the most historically significant collections in the Ralph Rinzler Archives.

We decided to focus our first large-scale digitization project on the Asch Collection for a few reasons. Parts of the collection are threatened by physical degradation. Intervention is absolutely necessary for the audio recordings, where some formats are succumbing to “sticky shed” syndrome and flaking acetate. The papers, products of an era of poor paper quality, are not faring much better-- some materials are brittle or very fragile, crumbling or tearing when handled.  Other materials are exhibiting mold damage as a result of poor storage conditions. We’ve flagged some of the materials in poor condition to ensure their prioritization in the digitization process; broad digitization will help identify and address these issues in the rest of the collection.

The Asch collection also has high research value. Digitization will help reduce “hand traffic” in the materials by making it possible to do most research with digital surrogates. Since the collection spans so many boxes, digitization will help researchers locate and utilize relevant materials without having to navigate their way through a sea of paper.

Asch Recordings 78rpm, Woody Guthrie, “Jesus Christ”
Over the course of the coming year, our goal for the Save America’s Treasures project is to scan about 196 linear feet of papers, photographs, artwork and scrapbooks, in addition to digitizing 500 glass acetate discs and 1000 reel-to-reel tapes. In the process, we will establish standards and implement workflow that will be sustainable beyond the life of the grant.

Of course, it’s one thing to talk about digitization and quite another to actually do it, and do it well. So much of making a project like this work has to do with the preparation stage.  We can’t digitize every single item in the collection, so what will our selection criteria look like?

As the project archivist for the paper component of the collection, much of my time is focused on the quality of the digital images we will be producing. How important is imaging accuracy versus project advancement? How can we maintain consistent results across a high volume of materials? Achieving balance between “best practices” and our resource constraints is really what it all comes down to, but even that seemed like an insurmountable task when I first started thinking about how to plan a digitization project. 

I’ve spent the past few months doing research and visiting other repositories that already have digitization programs, combining what I’ve learned to nail down what sustainable digitization looks like for the Ralph Rinzler Archives and Collections. You might say I’ve gone down the rabbit hole when it comes to gathering and highlighting and taking notes on digitization standards, project reports, and various in-house guidelines. There seem to be a million different ways to scan something, depending on your equipment, software, time, staff, and intent for the material, and every time I learn something new, it leads me to something else I want to read. Site visits have been extremely valuable for this reason, not only to help contextualize everything I’ve read, but to see what digitization looks like in the real world.

The most important thing we have learned during the planning stages of this project has been that every repository tailors the process to its own needs and available resources.  We’ve also learned not to panic if everything isn’t perfect—our aim is to produce as many reasonably accurate images and increase the visibility of this unique and fascinating collection.

Welcome to the future, Mr. Asch!

-Cecilia Peterson, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections


Helpful Resources: 
In addition to the standards, be sure to check out the glossary (a lifesaver) and the Project Planning paper.

Both the LoC and NARA technical guidelines are precursors to the FADGI standards, but they still offer very useful information.

The NAL based their guidelines on the FADGI standards; this page is a great way to see them distilled.

Ten Tips for Maintaining Digital Image Quality, by Peter D. Burns and Don Williams, Eastman Kodak Company

Common Imaging Problems, by Steven Puglia, Jeffrey A. Reed, Erin Rhodes,National Archives and Records Administration

Digitization: Five Minutes of Tips, Hints, and Clues, by Marcia Segal, Processing Archivist, American Folklife Center

The Signal, the Library of Congress' Digital Preservation Blog

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